Choir singing in Royal Hall - click for larger view
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Harrogate
Choral
Society

Review

Handel
Messiah 

The Royal Hall, Harrogate, 3 December 2011

A thrilling performance!

Performance of Handel's Messiah 2011

It was with some air of expectation that the large audience gathered to hear the performance of Handel's Messiah. At this time of the year this magnificent and unique work is performed many times by choirs and orchestras the length and breadth of our land and indeed throughout the world. Many people feel that going to hear this enduring work marks the beginning of their Christmas, but few will have heard a performance quite as magnificent as that given in the Royal Hall last saturday evening by Harrogate Choral Society and the Manchester Camerata under the meticulously well-prepared baton of Dr Andrew Padmore.

Following the excellently-shaped Overture with its elegantly spaced double-dotted feature and crisp and light allegro section, we were introduced to the first of the night's soloists, the tenor Ben Thapa, whose dramatic and passionate delivery in all that he sang held the audience almost spellbound. We were comforted in Comfort ye my people and we certainly knew that Every valley shall be exalted. Yet, later in the performance, Ben sang the four tenor items beginning with Thy rebuke hath broken his heart with such intense tenderness it communicated the desperate situation, beautifully written by Handel almost personally to every one of the audience. Similarly, Thus saith the Lord was strongly delivered by Duncan Rock, whose mature bass voice filled the Royal Hall with deep and resonant warmth. Duncan's phrasing throughout the evening was extremely well-controlled allowing a sense of broad spaciousness within the melodic lines. His interpretation of For behold, darkness shall cover the earth was really quite chilling; the sense of the being lost in The people that walked in darkness, very real.

The chorus began its contribution to the evening with And the glory followed later by And he shall purify and For us a child is born. It was immediately evident that many hours of detailed training by Andrew Padmore during rehearsals had really proved most productive. Here now was a large choir, balanced between the different voices producing a mature and most vibrant sound; indeed one of the exciting sounds the Choral Society has produced in many years.

The counter-tenor arias were sung by Robert Ogden. Robert showed his distinctive and unusually attractive voice in a most pleasing way, caressing the phrases of But who may abide and contrasting this well with He is like a refiner's fire. Sadly, a cold from which Robert was suffering prevented us from hearing the full expressive range of his remarkable voice but he managed very well in the circumstances. Behold a virgin shall conceive and O Thou that tellest were most musically phrased with well-detailed continuo accompaniment. This feature in the orchestra was evident in all the arias but most particularly in the recitatives where the continuo cello followed the sense of the vocal line, sometimes lifting and separating and sometimes held - legato, smoothly carrying the sense through. This detail is just one of the indications that this was a most meticulously prepared performance. The Pastoral Symphony gave a short peaceful break moving the scene to the angels and shepherds and introducing the beautiful and lyrical soprano voice of Elizabeth Cragg. Her tone had a liquid quality which was quite beautiful to listen to. Her rendition of Rejoice greatly was simply amazing whilst her sense of tenderness in How beautiful are the feet and I know that my Redeemer liveth showed tremendous control of tone. This was especially so at the end of this very precious aria, where Miss Cragg sang with an unbelievably soft pianissimo maintaining perfect control of both tone and support; truly amazing to hear!

The four choruses that occur in part two and which form the central 'backbone' of Messiah were very well sung indeed. The entries were assured and very confident; the phrasing matched between the parts and all extremely well balanced vocally. The articulation in All we like sheep at the section We have turned was wonderful - very clear and incredibly precise in all parts.

Superb playing from the orchestra particularly in Why do the nations made an excellent backdrop to Duncan Rock's powerful vocal line and his singing in The trumpet shall sound together with the playing of the Manchester Camerata was just majestic.

Handel himself would have been very impressed by this performance of Messiah; so full as it was with both playing and singing of such high quality; a splendidly led orchestra dedicated to providing quality at the highest level together with an exceptionally well-prepared chorus of voices and a superb set of soloists. Many congratulations to all but especially to Andrew Padmore for drawing all the threads together to produce such an amazingly rich performance of this wonderful and enduring masterpiece.

Adrian Selway